This past year, the UK has had to reckon with its history like never before. The Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020 not only shed a stark light on the systemic racism that blights the opportunities of many in the UK, they also encouraged an examination of the UK’s colonial past and its role in shaping the racist structures that persist today. Across the country, young people called for their schools to decolonise the curriculum and be honest about the extent to which the UK profited from human suffering and pillaging during the times of empire, a period which many in the UK still regard as a source of pride.1 The protests and national self-reflection that followed also triggered a debate about the many statues commemorating colonial figures and the appropriateness of having them in lauded positions on the nation’s streets: the statue of Edward Colston, the Bristol slave trader, was pulled down by protestors and rolled into the harbour;2 the statue of Robert Milligan, another slave trader, was removed lawfully by a London council after a successful petition;3 and the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a man who was known for his white-supremacist views and cutthroat imperialism, which has looked down on the streets of Oxford for over a century, was once again placed in the spotlight after an unsuccessful 2015 campaign calling for its removal (the statue might be removed in 2021).4
These actions and conversations show a public desire to honestly face up to the destructive, exploitative, and painful aspects of the UK’s past, and to challenge the rose-tinted stories of empire that permeate through the education system, the world of politics, and society at large. Part of the difficulty in facing up to this history is the fact that it goes against many of the stories we have been told about Britain: British colonialism has been presented as benevolently superior to that of other countries,5 and much of the violent history has been excised from the country’s historical narrative, to the extent that many Britons themselves believe it was a force of good.6 It is these stories that we need to engage with and challenge to ensure that the history, in all its destructive complexity, is being told.
This Teaching Idea prepares young people to be critical consumers of stories they are told and encourages them to consider how unpicking historical narratives can both be an act of justice and a catalyst for action. It is divided into two parts: In Part One, students engage with the story of Tom Rivett-Carnac, a climate change campaigner and descendent of the chairman of the East India Company, and his experience of listening to and re-examining his family’s tales of empire. Part Two, then, offers opportunities to explore the British Empire in further depth.
Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the PowerPoint for this Teaching Idea.
Those who tell the stories rule society. —Plato
The East India Company began as a trading company in the early 1600s, which sent boats to India to trade silver and European goods for spices, cottons, and other wares. This trade was hugely profitable and meant that the company grew in size, building various warehouses and factories in India, and eventually a private army. Over the next 250 years, the company was able to gain control of large tracts of the country and its people by exploiting divisions between leaders and looting India’s wealth.7 However, in 1858, after a rebellion against the company’s oppressive rule, notably its insensitivity towards people’s religions,8 the British government took over control of India, beginning the period known as the British Raj, which lasted until 19479. Modern estimates suggest Britain stole the equivalent of $45 trillion (£32.5 trillion) from India in the period between 1765 and 1938.10
The start of the British Empire can be traced to the sixteenth century before the Acts of Union, which marked the union of England and Scotland in 1707. England began building an empire by establishing settlements and trading posts, often by force, in other countries, notably Ireland, India, North America, the West Indies, and places in West Africa. These early settlements in the Americas and Africa laid the foundations for England’s, and later Britain’s, key role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain, and England before it, were responsible for enslaving over 3.4 million Africans13 (over a quarter of those enslaved).14 Those involved in this destructive and exploitative trade justified their actions by proclaiming the superiority of whites and the inferiority of the Black Africans who they were kidnapping.15 This doctrine of white supremacy would influence later colonisers,16 shape British views on race, and lay the foundations for the systemic racism that still exists today.17
At the end of the eighteenth century, Britain lost control of the colonies in North America in the American War of Independence. Despite this, the British Empire continued to grow as more colonies were established around the world, first in Australasia, then in Asia and Africa. In these colonies, as in earlier ones, Britain, the ‘mother country’, imposed its rule on the original inhabitants and extracted wealth to make Britain richer. At its peak in 1920, the British Empire controlled 25% of the Earth’s land surface and held dominion over hundreds of millions of people.18 This great imbalance in power, brought about through oppression and invasion, was not regarded as shameful, rather colonisers and Britons viewed colonialism as a noble endeavour, civilising ‘uncivilised’ peoples and providing a service to the countries that they were in fact pillaging.19
Despite its dominance in the early twentieth-century, by the 1960s most of Britain’s former colonies had gained independence and were no longer subject to the rule of Great Britain.20 But the influence of the British Empire did not end there: that the British Empire was a dominant force in the world is evident through the prevalence of the English language and of Christianity, the popularity of sports such as rugby and cricket, and the existence of the Commonwealth, which is an association of 54 countries, many of which are former colonies.21 Many also argue that Britain left behind valuable infrastructure, such as the trains in India, and progressive methods of education and governance. Pointing, however, to the benefits of being colonised has become problematic in recent years, particularly as it ignores the fact that many of the colonised countries could have made this progress themselves without the damage inflicted by colonialism.
Moreover, the darker legacy of the British Empire is undeniable in the world in which we live today. Not only do the aftereffects of colonial violence and its doctrine of white supremacy still reverberate through the lives of the descendants of those who lived under colonial rule,22 but the racism the colonists created determines how our society is organised and who the wealth-holders are.23 Present inequality in the UK, and the world, is inseparable from the history of the British Empire. However, in Britain, this destructive history, and how it has shaped the present, has not been adequately addressed, and thus among some groups there is a certain nostalgia for the days of empire, when Britain was a global superpower: 33% of those surveyed on the topic in 2020 believed colonies were better off as part of the British Empire.24
Rivett-Carnac identifies the link between our history and present-day inequality. Should you wish to explore more about the impact of colonialism on our society today with your students, take a look at the following resources: